quot;The Sopranosquot; returns for its biggest hit

by Beacon Staff • April 11, 2007

We don't need to hear him say it to know what is on his mind.

Should a murderous mob boss as calculating and corrupt as Tony (James Gandolfini) be allowed to live a happy life? If there is any sense of moral justice on Earth, when will Tony be punished for his crimes?

In other words, will one of the most charismatic and complex villains in the history of television sleep with the fish as the series comes to a thunderous and potentially devastating end?

"The Sopranos," which featured this scene during the first episode of its current and final season, has aged with time like a richly textured bottle of red wine.,Tony Soprano sits on the edge of a dock looking over a vast and rippling New England lake. He stares sadly into the black water, contemplating something both menacing and profound.

We don't need to hear him say it to know what is on his mind.

Should a murderous mob boss as calculating and corrupt as Tony (James Gandolfini) be allowed to live a happy life? If there is any sense of moral justice on Earth, when will Tony be punished for his crimes?

In other words, will one of the most charismatic and complex villains in the history of television sleep with the fish as the series comes to a thunderous and potentially devastating end?

"The Sopranos," which featured this scene during the first episode of its current and final season, has aged with time like a richly textured bottle of red wine. Since the sixth season aired last year, the pacing has become more contemplative than invigorating in its outlook on mob life. The show, which began with brutal and bloody shock and awe, has now lost its visceral thrills. It is no longer the quick-footed crime drama it was in its heyday.

Instead, "The Sopranos" has become a stunning meditation on morality and mortality, two M-words that have found their way into the thematic heart of the show. What was once seen as a black comedy glorifiying mob violence and poking fun at contemporary family values has become an immense and commanding work of human drama, with characters so rich and alive in their struggles, they almost take on a literary quality.

In "Soprano Home Movies," the first episode of this season, which premiered on Sunday, creator David Chase gives Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) a worn-out somberness that has been unevenly contained in the past episodes.

While visiting his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and her husband Bobby (Steve Schirripa) at their lake house, Tony confides to Carmela, "I'm old, Carm. My body has suffered a trauma it will probably never recover from."

After getting shot by his deranged uncle more than a year ago, Tony's life has dramatically changed, and if his silent moments sitting on the dock are any indication, the New Jersey mob boss has some serious doubts about how he has led his life.

However, moral consciousness only goes so far in the mind and heart of Tony Soprano, and after a drunken brawl between him and Bobby over a game of Monopoly, Tony forces his brother-in-law to commit a horrible and inhumane task. In this case, as in countless others, Chase refuses to glorify Tony as a tragic hero. Tony is a man who makes his own decisions and who must live with the consequences of them, however dire they may turn out to be.

The most remarkable aspect of "The Sopranos," aside from the increasingly astonishing performance by Falco, is that the viewer still sympathizes with a man like Tony Soprano. He has shot his cousin, decapitated a mob captain and attempted to smother his own mother with a pillow, but damn it if we don't love him.

As disgusted as audiences may feel towards his lifestyle, we know Tony better than he knows himself, and that's what makes him an entirely empathetic character.

We've sat with him for seven years in his shrink's office, unraveling hundreds of intimate details about his past. We've seen him at home with his wife and kids and we see the sincere affection and attention he gives to his family.

Tony Soprano, in a monolithic performance by Gandolfini, is the deepest contradiction of both humanity and depravity. This is why America loves "The Sopranos" and has watched it for almost a decade now. Tony is both a victim of his circumstance and an instigator of his own fate.

As the series comes to a close and as Chase decides the fates of each and every one of his characters, the viewers want to know more than "will Tony live or die?" We want to know, will Tony end this show as a good man or as a reprehensible monster?

If "Soprano Home Movies" is any indicator, the future of this fiercely flawed protagonist looks nothing but grim.